A tooth abscess is a buildup of infected material (pus) in the center of a tooth. It is an infection caused by bacteria.
A tooth abscess may form if there is tooth decay. It may also occur when a tooth is broken, chipped, or injured in other ways. Openings in the tooth enamel allow bacteria to infect the center of the tooth (the pulp). Infection may spread from the root of the tooth to the bones supporting the tooth.
Infection results in a buildup of pus and tissue swelling within the tooth. This causes a toothache. The toothache may stop if pressure is relieved. But the infection can remain active and continue to spread. This can cause more pain and can destroy tissue.
The main symptom is a severe toothache. The pain is continuous. It does not stop. It can be described as gnawing, sharp, shooting, or throbbing.
Other symptoms may include:
- Bitter taste in the mouth
- Breath odor
- General discomfort, uneasiness, or ill feeling
- Pain when chewing
- Sensitivity of the teeth to hot or cold
- Swelling of the gum over the infected tooth, which may look like a pimple
- Swollen glands of the neck
- Swollen area of the upper or lower jaw, which is a very serious symptom
Exams and Tests
Your dentist will closely look at your teeth, mouth, and gums. It may hurt when the dentist taps the tooth. Biting or closing your mouth tightly also increases the pain. Your gums may be swollen and red, and may drain thick material.
Dental x-rays and other tests can help your dentist determine which tooth or teeth are causing the problem.
The goals of treatment are to cure the infection, save the tooth, and prevent complications.
Your dentist might prescribe antibiotics to fight the infection. Warm saltwater rinses may help ease the pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers may relieve your toothache and fever.
Do NOT place aspirin directly on your tooth or gums. This increases irritation of the tissues and can result in mouth ulcers.
A root canal may be recommended in an attempt to save the tooth.
If you have a severe infection, your tooth may be removed, or you may need surgery to drain the abscess. Some people may need to be admitted to the hospital.
Untreated abscesses may get worse and can lead to life-threatening complications.
Prompt treatment cures the infection in most cases. The tooth can often be saved.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your dentist if you have a throbbing toothache that does not go away, or if you notice a bubble (or “pimple”) on your gums.
Prompt treatment of dental decay reduces the risk of tooth abscess. Have your dentist examine any broken or chipped teeth right away.
Periapical abscess; Dental abscess; Tooth infection; Abscess - tooth
Amsterdam JT. Oral medicine. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 70.
Mehta NR, Scrivani SJ, Spierings ELH. Dental and facial pain. In: Benzon HT, Rathmell JP, Wu CL, Turk DC, Argoff CE, Hurley RW, eds. Practical Management of Pain. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2014:chap 31.
Update Date 2/22/2016
Updated by: Michael Kapner, DDS, general and aesthetic dentistry, Norwalk Medical Center, Norwalk, CT. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.